Thursday, August 13, 2015

MicroAdventure: Cycling the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail

View from the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail

The week before last, I had the opportunity to slip away for a two-day MicroAdventure with my bike-riding buddy, Trish. We loaded up our bikes onto the back of Trish’s car after breakfast on Tuesday and headed across to Beechworth in north-eastern Victoria.

Shortly before arriving in the historic and well-preserved 1853 gold-mining town of Beechworth, I made good use of my role as Designated Passenger by Googling a suitable spot for lunch.

After reading one reviewer’s description of the pizzas at The Bridge Road Brewers (the double smoked ham, cheese and mushroom pizza allegedly better than sex…), I suggested to Trish that a MicroAdventure should undoubtedly begin at a MicroBrewery.

The Bridge Road Brewers operates out of 150-year-old stables, once owned by Hiram Allen Crawford of Crawford & Co, a major horse and coach enterprise in northern Victoria during the 1800s.
A selection of the Bridge Road Brewers' beer and cider

Beer and pizza, a match made in heaven and the perfect carbohydrate combination to fuel an afternoon’s cycling expedition.

Naturally, I chose a double-smoked ham, cheese and mushroom pizza to accompany my large glass of Beechworth Pale Ale and for dessert, a rich chocolate mousse and strong caffeine-fuelled latte.

Tempting though it was to curl up and have a nap after lunch, we resisted, unloaded our bikes and set off on a 46km ride along the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail.

The Murray to Mountains Rail Trail has over 100km of high-quality sealed off-road trail, stretching from Milawa through to Wangaratta, from Wangaratta you can peddle to Myrtleford or turn off at Everton and head uphill to Beechworth. From Myrtleford you can peddle on up to Bright in the Victorian high country.

Our post pizza ride took us downhill from Beechworth to Everton and along to the site of what was once the Tarrawingee Railway Station, towards Wangaratta. At this point we had cycled an idyllic 23km of gloriously smooth downhill, past bright, golden wattles and lush farm paddocks in the winter sunshine… at which point, Trish suggested we might like to bike back. Uphill. All the way to Beechworth…

By the time we reached the outskirts of town, the sun was setting and I felt quite sure my beer, pizza, chocolate mousse and latte had all been thoroughly metabolised by my body.
The welcome sight of Beechworth after our 46km ride
Cycling the rail trail mid-week, towards the end of July, (when it might snow), almost guarantees you will enjoy the trail to yourself. One solitary cyclist whizzed past us on the return journey. It is truly a magical route for bike riding and so relaxing, knowing you aren’t about to be inadvertently run over by a motorist.

After enjoying long, hot showers, Trish and I were ready to locate a suitable dining location for dinner… but not just any dinner. It was Tuesday night and Tuesday Night Dinner is a weekly occasion in my house; one that I often spend hours concocting in my head and then preparing. My first two choices for dinner weren’t open on a Tuesday, dagnabbit! So I decided to turn to Facebook friend and senior food writer for The Age newspaper, Richard Cornish, for advice.

Richard’s Tuesday night dinner in Beechworth recommendations were either Tanswell’s Hotel or the Indian restaurant.

It was a cold night (-2°C) so Indian was tempting but the thought of a good red and some nourishing pub grub won out.

Tanswell’s Commercial Hotel was established in 1853 and is located right next door to The Bridge Road Brewers.

I chose the oven baked gnocchi with leek and blue cheese as my main meal (after my last MicroAdventure, Trish insisted I stay away from steak, saying, "You are not going to be medevaced out on my watch!") and Trish, on the waiter’s recommendation, chose the lasagne with salad and we washed our meals down with a bottle of Cofield Sparkling Shiraz from Rutherglen.

Fried and flaming quince ice cream
For dessert, I enjoyed the fried quince ice cream, theatrically set alight by our attentive and helpful waiter, with generous lashings of calvados (apple brandy). Trish was very pleased with her choice of pear, chocolate and walnut tart with crème anglaise.

Although I enjoyed my gnocchi, I will confess to a certain degree of food envy after sampling Trish’s lasagne. Its exquisite flavour was so exceptional that I went and thanked the chef personally after dinner and asked him how he made it.

Tanswells' chef extraordinaire, David
Chef David explained his lasagne recipe was inspired by the teachings of world famous Italian chef and restaurateur, Massimo Bottura, owner of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant based in the northern Italian city of Modena.

David told me that Massimo is not a fan of the southern Italian lasagne recipes with their minced meat, mozzarella or tomatoes (the style commonly cooked in Australia); instead, prefers the northern Italian version made with a slow-cooked, hand-chopped meat ragu (with no tomato) and besciamella (béchamel sauce) in layers between egg pasta sheets with some grated parmigianoreggiano cheese on top.

After dinner, Trish and I walked back to our room at the Carriage Motor Inn, turned the split system up to 30°C to combat the subzero outside temperature and promptly went to sleep.
Many Beechworth businesses are going out of their way to welcome cyclists - smart marketing!

Our second and final day of our MicroAdventure began with a substantial breakfast at the So Simple Café and some excellent coffee. Having already loaded up the bikes, we drove back down to Everton, parked the car and rode our bikes towards Myrtleford. It was a relatively easy ride, with a bit of a climb up to Taylor’s Gap before descending to Gapsted and on to Myrtleford.

Pygmy possum? Marsupial mouse?
Refuelling in Myrtleford on yet more excellent coffee and a warm, fresh-from-the-oven, raspberry muffin at Coffee Chakra, we got back on our bikes and peddled all the way back to Everton, a 55km round trip. Along the way we saw a couple of echidnas, something that may have been either a marsupial mouse or pygmy possum, numerous kangaroos and wallabies, fresh wombat tracks leading to a large, cavernous wombat hole and a great variety of birdlife.
Yellow-Tufted Honeyeater

Female King Parrot?

Arriving back at Everton, we loaded the bikes onto Trish’s car, having completed a total of just over 100km of bike riding for the two days. Heading home via Beechworth, we decided that no trip to Beechworth would be complete without visiting the famous Beechworth Bakery and a hot chicken pie each was the perfect conclusion to our day’s ride.
The bakery that put Beechworth on the map

Driving back into Barham that night, a mere 36 hours since we began our MicroAdventure, I felt completely recharged and as though I had been away and holidaying for more than a week. Perfect.

Annie Barr

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

MicroAdventure to the Flinders Ranges

Flinders Ranges, South Australia

My momma always said, "Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." – Forrest Gump

Last Sunday night, my son Sam and I watched the 1994 classic film Forrest Gump - three days later I was heading off with my youngest son, Henry, on a microadventure to the Flinders Ranges in the South Australian Outback.

An ancient mountain range beginning almost 400km north of Adelaide, the Flinders Ranges have been on my “To Visit” list since 1996 when I travelled from Adelaide to Broken Hill via the Barrier Highway. Looking up to the north from the town of Peterborough, I felt drawn towards the landscape and made a note to return one day.

Suffering from parental guilt over the fact that I hadn’t organised any family time during the school holidays, I quickly cancelled out three days for a mini-break with the boys… only to have Max and Sam decline my invitation to visit the South Australian Outback… a ten hour drive wasn’t their idea of fun. However, twelve-year-old Henry was excited and suggested that he and I head off together.

Loading up the Barrmobile the night before with our swags, food and water, Henry and I motored out of Barham at 5.35 the next morning. Driving along in the early morning darkness we admired the almost full moon and the celestial conjunction of planets Venus and Jupiter, low in the sky.

Our first stop was a brief pause at the McDonald’s drive thru in Swan Hill – Henry felt a bacon and egg McMuffin would make a trip to the outback more sustainable.

We arrived at 27 Deakin Café and Good Food Store in Mildura before 9am for my breakfast of smoked salmon and avocado on a hash brown accompanied with excellent coffee and Henry’s second breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup along with a delicious mug of hot chocolate.

Our next stop was a few hours down the road at the historic South Australian town of Burra. Settled in 1845 and home to one of the world’s largest copper mines until 1877. Today Burra is a pastoral centre for the surrounding sheep stations and one of the best-preserved Victorian era towns in Australia.
Burra Police Station 1879 - 1971

We wandered through one of several antique shops, photographed some of the old stone buildings and Henry selected a nutritious bag of butter mints from The Burra Lolly Shop before we headed north along the Barrier Highway.

Further along the road I received a phone call from my friend, Fleur. She and her family were traveling through the Flinders Ranges with a group of friends from Hay. They had left a couple of days ahead of us and had been through Broken Hill and Yunta and were now at Wilpena Pound.

I said we were heading to Hawker and depending on daylight, we may even make it to Wilpena Pound to camp for the night. Fleur replied that they were staying on Baratta Station, about an hour or two’s drive east of Hawker which was possibly too far out of the way for me but perhaps we could meet up in Hawker?

Shortly afterwards we both lost phone range.

Henry and I drove on through Peterborough, Black Rock and Orroroo, the sun was heading rapidly towards the horizon and we still had over 100km to cover to reach the town of Hawker.

Consulting my well-worn 1995 edition of The Australian Motoring Companion, I discovered Baratta Station marked on the map about 80 or 90km north east of the next town we were passing through, Carrieton.

Feeling we had Buckley’s Chance of catching Fleur, Hamish and the rest of the Hay crew before they left Hawker, and knowing we had plenty of fuel, water and food on board, I decided to try my luck at finding Baratta Station.
A beautiful drive into the unknown

We had a beautiful drive in the failing light, down a rocky dirt road and I stopped a number of times to take photographs of the landscape and spectacular sunset. It felt as though we were traveling through our very own Albert Namatjira painting. The dark arrived quicker than I expected but not long afterwards we crossed onto Baratta Station. A while further down the road, our headlights picked up a signpost, “Baratta HS” (HS standing for homestead) and I knew we were on the right track.

The first house we came to turned out to be the shearer’s quarters and a rather surprised gentleman gave me directions on to the homestead where I introduced myself to owners, Sandy and Di. Explaining that I was originally from Hay and that my friends Fleur and Hamish had told me they were camping on Baratta, Di welcomed Henry and I inside. Johnny and Lisa and their family, the first of the Hay travellers, arrived shortly afterwards.

Chatting with Sandy and Di, I discovered that Sandy had jackarooed in the Riverina in the late 1980s and Di’s Great Grandfather, Sir Herbert Ramsay, was the first person to actually sing “Waltzing Matilda” when he sang it on 6 April 1895 at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton, Queensland.

Tucked into swags around the campfire for the night
It was another couple of hours before the rest of the Hay crew turned up but once everyone had arrived there were nearly forty of us, including the children. Later that night, after a great evening with Di and Sandy and their family, we drove down to the campsite, a good half hour’s drive from the homestead. Henry and I unrolled our swags with the others around a roaring campfire and had a welcome sleep after driving 946km for the day.
Henry rolling his swag the next morning

Group photo with my fellow adventurers from Hay NSW

Station tour with Sandy and Di

Merino ewes and lambs on Baratta Station
The next morning we woke up to beautiful surrounds of a fresh water spring and impressive rocky hills. After breakfast, packing up and a group photograph, Sandy gave us a tour of some of the 100,000 acres that make up Baratta Station.

Sandy cleaning out a trough on Baratta Station

Saying farewell to Sandy and Di, we headed up to Wilpena Pound. Happily for Henry and I, the Hay crew decided they wanted to go back to Wilpena Pound before heading further north to Arkaroola in the Gammon Ranges National Park and we enjoyed their company for most of the day.

Wilpena Pound is a natural amphitheatre of ancient mountains in the heart of the Flinders Ranges. Measuring 17km long by 8km wide and covering more than 100km, Wilpena Pound is a spectacular geological feature in outback Australia.
Wilpena Pound

Later in the afternoon we arrived at the 1869, North Blinman Hotel in time for a drink and for the kids to play a game of pool. It was here that Henry and I said goodbye to our friends and headed west to the tiny locality of Parachilna and the Prairie Hotel.

Drinks at the North Blinman Hotel
We received a warm welcome from Grant at the Prairie Hotel and were shown to our room. The beds looked extremely inviting however, we decided on hot showers, a change of clothes and headed to the restaurant for an early dinner.
Arriving at the Prairie Hotel in Parachilna

Henry chose a serve of pizza, chips and salad and I chose the slow cooked harissa goat with zesty lemon and quince pearl couscous with a glass of southern Flinders sparkling Shiraz.
The goat... it was all looking so yummy!

Unfortunately my first mouthful of goat wasn’t as tender as I had expected but rather tough and gristly. Instead of discreetly spitting it out, I decided to be more discreet and swallow it… Big mistake.
The perfidious piece of goat lodged in my throat! (I know, there’s a limerick just waiting to be written there). Fortunately for me, it wasn’t obstructing my breathing.

I quietly excused myself and went to the bathroom to see if I would have any luck removing the firmly lodged piece of meat. No such luck.

Grant, who had checked us in, asked the other restaurant patrons if there was a doctor amongst them. There wasn’t.

I phoned my nurse practitioner friend, Trish, who was on duty at Kerang Hospital that night. Sadly, my infinitely wise friend informed me the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) was possibly my only option.

The only other option was to call the closest hospital, situated in the coal-mining town of Leigh Creek, 65km north of Parachilna. Grant spoke with the nurse on duty who consulted with the doctor on call, who concurred with Trish and said the RFDS would need to be called in and I along with Henry, would be flown from Leigh Creek to either Adelaide or Port Augusta.

Ned the barman offered to drive Henry and I up to Leigh Creek and a lovely couple from Sydney, Rosie and Mark, who were also staying the night at the Prairie Hotel, offered to drive our vehicle south in the morning.

Looking wistfully at our unslept-in beds, Henry and I repacked our bags and headed north with Ned in the Barrmobile.

Ned the barman and Henry at Leigh Creek hospital

Doctor Jenny and the nursing staff at Leigh Creek hospital greeted us when we arrived and tried their best to make me feel comfortable, however, a long, uncomfortable night ensued. I was unable to sleep as I was spitting up saliva every ten to fifteen minutes.
Not quite the Thursday night I had envisaged

The RFDS was due between 6 and 7am but another medical emergency diverted the plane to William Creek, 320km north west of Leigh Creek. Paramedics, Matt and Dan picked us up around 11am and drove Henry and I out to the airport where we watched the RFDS’s Pilatus PC-12 come in to land.
The Flying Doctor, coming into Leigh Creek

Dan and Matt, wheeling me to the plane
The Royal Flying Doctor Service originated in Cloncurry, Queensland on the 15th May 1928. Instigated by Presbyterian Church minister, the Rev John Flynn. Today it is one of the largest and most comprehensive aero medical organisations in the world. Servicing an area of more than 7,000,000 km2 and flying more than 26,000,000 km each year, the RFDS provides 24hr emergency medical assistance to rural and remote Australia. Relying heavily on fundraising and donations from the community to purchase and medically-equip its aircraft, the RFDS is pretty much at the top of my list for noble causes and one I’m glad to have donated to over the years.

We met Neil, the pilot, RFDS Flight Nurse, Jacqui and onboard patient Ben and his girlfriend Liz.
Onto the plane with Neil the pilot and Jacqui the Flight Nurse

Ben and Liz were both pilots based at William Creek and in a somewhat bizarre coincidence; Ben also has meat stuck in his throat. In his case, roast pork. Flight Nurse Jacqui said she saw about one esophageal obstruction per year and to have two from two different locations on the same flight was unheard of.
Scenic Flight over Flinders Ranges courtesy of the RFDS

After a very scenic flight down to Port Augusta, we were transported to the hospital and operating theatre where both Ben’s roast pork and my goat were successfully removed. About five minutes before I was wheeled into surgery, Mark and Rosie arrived en route from the Prairie Hotel to the Barossa Valley with the Barrmobile and handed over my keys.
Ben getting unloaded to an awaiting ambulance in Port Augusta

Driving through the Mallee on our way to Mildura
Henry and I spent the night in Port Augusta where we both enjoyed a good night’s sleep before motoring off in the morning for Barham… 840km later we were home from our very memorable microadventure in time for dinner, which in my case was soup.

Forrest Gump’s Momma was right.

Annie Barr

Almost home: Boundary Bend on the Murray River... two hour's driving to go

Monday, May 25, 2015

Enjoy the Little Things...

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realise they were the big things.” – Robert Brault

When I read Robert Brault’s famous quote from 1985, I think of walking; such a simple daily activity I used to take for granted.

I haven’t written a column for Behind the Barr for nearly five months and I haven’t walked more than a hundred metres in nearly six months.

Way back in early December last year, I was carefree and having the time of my life, cycling along on 2014 Great Victorian Bike Ride. The third day of riding saw me peddling across the top of Victoria’s Great Dividing Range, 93km from Bright to the tiny township of Moyhu.

After relaxing with my fellow cyclists and enjoying the exceptional Moyhu hospitality, my cycling buddy Trish and I decided to ride the couple of kilometres to the local swimming hole on the Kiewa River.

Moyhu Swimming Hole
What a magnificent spot it was and the deliciously cool, clear water felt great on our tired legs. We relaxed, treading water and chatting with a couple of Melbourne blokes, Brett and Stuart.

While we talked, I looked across at a group of school kids making good use of a rope swing. Looking at that rope swing I was transported back to my teenage years; you know, that time in life when you know everything and nothing?

All I could see was fun, fun, fun.

STOP RIGHT NOW!!! (If only I could have shouted this to myself back on the 2nd December 2014.)

Completely disregarding my wise friend, Trish’s advice, I swam over and lined up for a turn. Like the boy in front of me, I climbed the old dead willow to get extra height, for what I envisaged would be an adrenaline fuelled flight, through the air and dropping neatly into the cool, deep water below…

I miscalculated my swing by about five centimetres.

As I swung down, I failed to lift my right leg quite high enough and slammed my heel into the bank before momentum flung me onwards to the water.

For a few moments, my leg felt completely numb from below the knee and I felt a sense of dread that I had done some kind of serious injury. Brett and Stuart swam over and towed me across the river to the glowering Trish.

“You’ve broken your bloody foot, haven’t you?” said an understandably, cranky, Trish.

“’Tis but a scratch.” I answered ruefully in my best impersonation of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

After about ten or fifteen minutes, I felt as though I had a reasonable range of movement in my ankle and if I could just make it to my bike, I would be ok. A short and painful hobble and I was on my bike and peddled carefully back to the evening campsite, where I spent a couple of hours sitting on a plastic chair outside the first aid room with a bag of ice on my swollen and bruised ankle.

The next morning after breakfast, I hobbled back to the first aid room and had my ankle firmly strapped to enable me to continue riding. As luck would have it, cycling is a non-weight bearing activity and I was relatively pain-free peddling my bike… which was just as well as I still had more than 350km to ride.

Smiling post x-ray, thinking it was just a sprained ankle
The following day was our official “rest day” in Mansfield where I soaked up some fine dining experiences at The Deck on High and the Mansfield Coffee Merchant… as well as some electromagnetic radiation from Mansfield Hospital’s Radiography Department. The lovely Dr Laura declared the x-ray of my ankle clear but advised me to follow up with an MRI if I wasn’t walking properly in three weeks time.

Three weeks later it was Christmas and the festive season was in full swing – who has time to think of MRIs?

Weeks went by and I hobbled along in a state best described by my eldest son, Max, as mindless optimism.

Eight days after the rope swing...
Finally on the 12th January, I had an MRI taken of my right ankle. The subsequent diagnosis and prognosis was bleak: osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) in the form of a 14mm lesion to the lateral talar dome on my talus (ankle joint) bone; a significant injury to the cartilage and bone underneath with a less than ideal outlook for healing.

A CT scan at Olympic Park Sports Medicine Centre (OPSMC) in Melbourne on 9th February showed the injured underlying bone had broken down leaving a hole in my talus bone. A medical miracle was now looking like my preferred option.

Under the guidance of OPSMC Director, Dr Andrew Jowett, more than eight weeks of non-weight bearing followed. I scoured the internet to find a device that would enable me to keep working as a remedial massage therapist; as a self-employed single parent of three, not working wasn’t an appealing option. 

Fortunately my “Googling” paid off and I discovered the iWalk 2.0; a clever hands free crutch that kept my ankle clear of the ground and looked like a pirate’s wooden leg. While not aesthetically pleasing, it did an excellent job of keeping my ankle completely non-weight bearing.

In the last few months I’ve learnt a lot about the talus bone and I’ve shed many hot, angry tears over the frustrations of not being able to walk. I feel as though my wings have been well and truly clipped, excellent epic adventures have been shelved for an indefinite period of time and my daily early morning walk has become a distant memory.

On the plus side, I’ve been able to continue my work as a remedial massage therapist five days per week, ride my trusty touring bike 15 – 20km each morning before work and swim 1 – 2km a week.

My recovery plan includes taking supplements of calcium, vitamin D, glucosamine, chondroitin, msm and fish oil; getting regular massages on my legs; rubbing comfrey ointment onto my ankle; using a circulation booster (an electrical pulse machine you put your feet on); wearing heavy duty compression stockings to minimise the swelling in the ankle; praying and inviting my friends to pray for me; I’ve also included healing energy therapy in the form of reiki sessions and an EFT tapping session. Who knows if any of this works but I’m willing to try anything. So if you're reading this and have additional healing advice, please feel free to share it in the comments section.

Although I still can’t walk more than 100 metres and my doctor has cautioned me that I have a long way to go, my latest CT scan in April showed “progressive healing”! The bone appears to be growing back where the hole in my talus is.

Some days I find it a huge challenge to stay positive and believe in my body’s ability to heal itself. (Manifesting medical miracles can be exhausting work.) I constantly have to remind myself to focus on all the things I can do, instead of grieving over all the things I can’t. Instead of excellent epic adventures, I’m now focussed on planning excellent microadventures and enjoying the little things… stay tuned!
Can't walk but can do wedding photography!

Annie Barr